Recently, a colleague shared a set of assignment instructions for me to review. And, like most writing assignments, there were a lot of good intentions and some good instructions for 100-level students. The assignment, though, suffered from an all-too-common ailment—the instructor had aimed so high in her ambitions for her students’ writing that the underlying skills of academic writing were being neglected. And on some level, the teacher must have known this.

Here’s what I mean. Nearly ten paragraphs into the assignment instructions was a section that went something like this:

“When you quote, do so sparingly, and add context for the quotes you’re providing. For example,

  • “In her 2014 book, The Faces of the Subcontinent, historian Myra Thomas stated…”

  • “In a 1933 letter to Senator Duncan Fletcher, Winston Churchill wrote…”

The instructor’s instinct here is pretty good, something along the lines of, “Some of these students might not know how to do this well and could use a few examples as models.” Not a bad thought. But let’s dig into this a little further and see just how much this instructor is glossing over.

If I were to ask most college instructors, “Can you name three functions of a signal phrase?” A lot of them would probably say something like, “What’s a signal phrase?” Be honest, that’s probably what you’d have said. You know what it is now because of the context, but two minutes ago? That’s fine, unless your students need to be taught all the reasons why signal phrases are important. And they do, if, like the students receiving this set of instructions, they’re in a 100-level class.

To this assignment’s instructor, who knows implicitly all the things a signal phrase should do, it must seem sufficient to simply write “add context” and leave a few examples. But let’s be honest about who our students are. In a class of 20 nineteen-year-olds, there’s going to be a sizeable chunk who might not even know what the word “context” means in this case. A handful of them might even need to look up the word. What would constitute sufficient context here?

It is not uncommon for a first-year instructor to receive papers with signal phrases that look something like:

  • Jerry stated “ the four walls bearing the structural load were beginning to crack under the weight of the dome”.

And while you’re grading this paper, you think almost impulsively and snarkily, “Who the hell is Jerry and why the hell should I care what he thinks about structural engineering?” And then, depending on whether you’ve had enough coffee before grading, you’ll probably tone it down before actually writing a similar but more constructive response. But seriously, that’s nearly half of my students at some point in their first semester. And that’s not on them.

They don’t know what they don’t know. Some of them may pick up a few or even all of the nuances of signal phases over the course of their college education simply by exposure. But writing is not instinctive, and academic writing is even less instinctive, and there’s a lot embedded in even the simplest sub-skill of academic writing, like signal phrases. Writing “add context” in your assignment instructions simply isn’t going to ensure that your students will master this skill. If you want them to learn those nuances, you have to teach them.

So let’s take a close look at the nuances lying beneath the surface. Judging from the instructor’s examples above, they’ve clearly mastered the skill of “adding context” to a quote using a signal phrase or clause. Their signal clauses add a lot of context; here’s the first one again:

  • “In her 2014 book, Faces of the Subcontinent, historian Myra Thomas stated…”

This signal clause performs at least five discrete functions simultaneously. No, really. Five.

  1. It lets the reader know when the quote was written (2014).

  2. It provides the reader the source for the quote (the book Faces of the Subcontinent).

  3. It identifies the speaker of the quote (Myra Thomas).

  4. It provides a basis for caring about the speaker’s opinion (ethos—that she’s a historian).

  5. And it signals that a different narrator from the essay’s author is responsible for the information inside the quotation marks.

All of this is deftly embedded by our instructor in this example as though it’s really no big deal at all, because for her, it’s really no big deal at all. But for my student, who’d never been taught this skill, who really wants to include that quote from Jerry and really wants their reader to know why those cracking walls are important, this is a difficult problem. And this student won’t acquire that skill unless somebody breaks it down for them in specific terms.

They need to know what constitutes important “context” and what doesn’t. They need to be taught that the function of the signal phrase is to provide the reader sufficient information about who that speaker is and why they should care about the speaker’s opinion or evidence. Many first-year students will even need to be taught that it’s not sufficient to use only a source’s first name in a signal phrase. Sorry, Jerry.

Now, you may be thinking something along the lines of, “But where am I supposed to fit that into my class schedule; I’m too busy teaching Archaeology.” Fair enough. But let’s say you think teaching writing is a very important part of a college education. And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that you assign a total of three papers over the course of the semester. How difficult would it be for you to add a specific focus—say, writing effective signal phrases—to each of these papers. And you decide to add ten minutes in two lectures to talking about some of the nuances we mentioned above, with the understanding that this skill would be a focus in that paper’s rubric? Wouldn’t it be great to see something like this from twenty of your students for a change:

  • But Society of American Chemists president Claire Drebbel objected to DeGrugier’s characterization of the accident, stating, “The whole thing might have been prevented with a little more clarity in the technician’s notes.”

A short amount of time in the classroom addressing writing skills with this level of specificity may just save you ten times that amount of time writing the same comment over and over again when you’re grading. And it certainly won’t hurt your students in their quest to become better writers.